Books that touch on Parkinson’s Law

Posted 23 March 2020

Willpower: Why self-control is the secret to success by Roy F. Baumeister & John Tierney and Peopleware: Productive projects and teams (3rd edition) by Tom DeMarco & Timothy Lister

These two books are very different in terms of subject matter and intended audience: one is about psychology experiments on willpower for the general public, whereas the other is about management for managers of teams working on software construction projects. But they both touch on Parkinson’s Law and task planning, and it’s fascinating to compare their different takes on these matters.

The conclusion of Willpower says to remember Parkinson’s Law (even though it hasn’t been mentioned up to this point): Work expands so as to fill the time available for its completion. So we’re to set a firm time limit for tedious tasks such as cleaning out the basement. Then we’re pretty much done with Parkinson’s Law.

The next section of the conclusion says that when you set a goal, you should beware the planning fallacy, wherein people underestimate the time it will take to complete a task. It says that a psychologist quantified this phenomenon in an experiment that involved asking students to predict when they would finish their theses. On average, students predicted 34 days but ended up taking 56 days. Three pieces of advice for avoiding the planning fallacy are given. First, think about similar tasks you have done in the past. This is frankly preposterous because the whole point about the planning fallacy (as noted by its originators Daniel Kahneman and Amos Tversky, who are not mentioned) is that underestimation occurs even when individuals know that similar previous tasks have taken longer than planned. Second, ask others to review your plan because all of us are optimistic about our own plans but more realistic about other people’s plans. Third, follow the management technique of entrepreneur Aaron Patzer: ask all the managers and workers in your organization to set their top three goals for the week and don’t allow them to work on other goals until they have done the top three.

The authors of Peopleware take a different view: clinging to Parkinson’s Law convinces managers that the only way to get work done is to set an impossibly optimistic delivery date. In arguing for the repeal of Parkinson’s Law, they point out that Parkinson was more of a humorist than a scientist, that he collected no data, and that the law applies only to government bureaucracies. Because their book is aimed primarily at managers of teams working on software construction projects, they further say “Parkinson’s Law almost certainly doesn’t apply to your people.” That’s because team members want the job satisfaction that comes from actually getting software developed and delivered.

The Peopleware people go on to summarize data collected by researchers using annual surveys of live projects in industry. An aim of one survey was to determine the effect on productivity of various estimating methods. Developers were a bit more productive when they had done the estimate themselves than if their supervisor had done the estimate without consultation. When the two did the estimate together, the results tended to fall in between. Better productivity was achieved when estimates were done by a third party, typically a systems analyst — who would know the work but not be hampered by the over-optimism of the developer or the political or budgetary constraints of the supervisor. But by far the best productivity was achieved on projects for which no estimates were prepared at all! The authors conclude that, although the data doesn’t prove that Parkinson’s Law doesn’t apply to software construction projects, it raises doubts. And a decision to apply schedule pressure to a project team must be carefully justified.

My comparison of these books leads me to the following conclusions.

  • You can apply some critical thinking to Parkinson’s Law rather than taking it at face value.
  • You can collect data from real projects in industry, where several people have to work together as a team, rather than student assignments, where each student works only on their own thesis.
  • If you’re going to ask someone else to review your estimate, you can be a bit more specific about who to ask.
  • You needn’t focus on accomplishing three goals per week, unless you can find a solid basis for doing so or you’re a footballer.

See also my separate reviews of Willpower and Peopleware, which go beyond their coverage of Parkinson’s Law.